Tom Blach's family has been ranching for more than a century now, its annual economic fortunes tangled up in the stalks of grass that carpet 4,000 acres of Yuma County rangeland. "Where we make our money is harvesting grass and putting pounds on cattle," he explains, adding that "you need every ounce of grass you can get these days."

That's why, when he peered among the roots last summer, Blach began to worry. He saw grasshoppers. Lots of them, eating his grass. Some of the land was covered by as many as twenty hoppers per square yard, two and a half times the rate that agricultural experts say can lead to economic devastation.

This summer will mark a decade since plains states farmers and ranchers experienced their last major grasshopper infestation. Following the most ambitious insecticide-spraying program in the country's history, at a cost of more than $35 million, the hoppers' numbers dwindled back to manageable levels for the remainder of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. Now ranchers and farmers who make a living off of eastern Colorado's plains fear the bugs are back.

Government officials and entomologists caution that it is too early to tell whether another infestation is imminent. Much depends on the weather this spring, which will determine how many grasshopper eggs will turn into crop-munching insects; a cool, wet spring would kill off many of the young hoppers before they begin bingeing on the area's crops.

On the other hand, notes Jim Zizz, a state cooperative extension agent in Yuma County who specializes in agronomy and plant pathology, "If we have a dry spring and they lay a lot of eggs, we have a potential for a bad problem. We could be looking at a lot of rangeland disappearing."

Marvin Salvador first noticed the threat last July when he began visiting corn farms in Yuma County to get an idea of the number of grasshoppers in the region--and, more important, what that number might translate into come 1995. What Salvador, a retired cooperative extension agent and a lifelong resident of the area, saw was alarming.

"The ground was loud," he recalls. "They were just thicker'n hell. The ground was moving in front of me. When you get a dry year--and last year was dry; damn, it was dry!--your grasshoppers start really populating."

Each fall the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) conducts an adult-grasshopper survey in the plains states. This past October it confirmed what Salvador and others observed over the summer.

According to APHIS's counts, most of Yuma County and large chunks of Kit Carson, Washington, Logan and Morgan counties had eight or more grasshoppers per square yard. That number of insects will consume as much grass as a cow and her calf--which is why the government considers it significant enough to start worrying seriously about an economic fallout.

In all, Colorado has about 1.6 million acres that, depending on this spring's hopper hatch, could become infested. Nebraska, Montana and South Dakota face an even greater threat. In all, APHIS estimates that 26 million acres of plains rangeland are ripe for a grasshopper invasion this summer.

State officials downplay the threat, pointing out that the chunk of northeastern Colorado where the swarms would light is relatively small. Frank Peairs, a professor of entomology at Colorado State University, says that although he agrees "the potential is much higher than it's been in the last several years," the 22-year grasshopper-regeneration cycle is just beginning its upswing. Adds Thomas Crowe, APHIS's plant health director for Colorado, "One-point-six million acres is not a disaster in any form."

Such assurances aren't playing well in Yuma County, however, where two thirds of the land is range and where most people still make their living off the vicissitudes of nature and the free market. Glitches this year in both areas pose a lethal combination.

On nature's side, the region has been unusually dry this winter, and some weather-watchers are forecasting an equally dry spring. Meanwhile, 1995 cattle prices are expected to be the lowest they've been in nearly a decade. While that's good news for carnivores, it means that ranchers won't have a lot of extra pocket change to spend on controlling a rebounding grasshopper population. Says Crowe, "A lot of these ranchers just don't have the money" to pay for spraying.

All of which explains why, one month ago, more than twenty ranchers and farmers showed up at a meeting in Yuma County to determine the level of concern about a summer infestation. The strong turnout convinced county officials to begin lobbying government agricultural agencies to prepare for aerial spraying if it becomes necessary.

Given the slow-motion machinery of government, the county is gearing up none too soon. For starters, federal regulations require that ranchers first pool their land into 10,000-acre sections, the minimum amount APHIS considers necessary for insecticide spraying to have an impact on an area's grasshopper population. Then the landowners must agree to foot at least one third of the $4-an-acre cost of having a plane coat the land with chemicals. If the early-summer hopper hatch turns out to be bad enough, the federal government will kick in another third of the cost.

Depending on its resources--and if the governor decides to request emergency help--the state might pick up the remaining third. If it doesn't, ranchers must cover that, too, though they may be eligible for loans from the county. Co-op agent Zizz has scheduled a put-up-or-shut-up meeting with Yuma County ranchers for February 16, at which time they must agree to pay their share of the late-spring aerial spraying, if it is needed, or pray for nature to do the job for them.

The county's farmers face an even stickier predicament. The federal government agrees to pick up part of the tab for rangeland only, because much of it is federally owned. As a result, farmers must foot their insecticide tab themselves. Even worse for the farmers, says Salvador, is that a rangeland spray can drive the grasshoppers over to nearby croplands.

Meanwhile, APHIS must contact the state Division of Wildlife to determine what effect the insecticides would have on the various endangered and threatened plants and animals in the area. Crowe says his agency met with Colorado wildlife officers last week to begin pinpointing which areas of the northeast corner of the state need to be avoided when and if spraying begins.

"If we're not prepared," warns Zizz, "this summer we may have to just sit and watch the grasshoppers go.


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